It opens with shots of dreamy young women lying in a circle in a meadow, lounging on tree limbs, then dancing around like goddesses in training. For a moment, it looks as if Australian director Jane Campion (The Piano) is about to remake The Crucible. But the scene is just a fanciful prologue—Campion’s way of saying that, while she may be turning a fat literary classic by a dead American male into a lavish period film, she is going to do it with contemporary flair and a feminist intelligence.
The first frame of Nicole Kidman—who plays Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James’s 1881 novel, The Portrait of a Lady—offers an extreme close-up of her eyes, which are very blue and very bloodshot. Kidman’s eyes will fill with tears over and over again during the 144 minutes of the film. But even as she weeps, they remain strangely open and unblinking for the camera—an indication of what is askew in a beautiful film so enamored of its own beauty that emotion is not felt so much as observed.
The story is set among American expatriates basking in the decadence of Europe in the late 19th century. Isabel is a defiantly independent American who rejects a marriage proposal from a rich British lord (Richard E. Grant) to pursue her own adventures. Her admiring cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan) secretly helps her out by persuading a dying uncle (Sir John Gielgud) to leave her his fortune. But instead of buying freedom, wealth makes Isabel an attractive prey for the duplicitous Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey), who steers her into a bad marriage with the cold-blooded dilettante Osmond (John Malkovich).
Offering a campy replay of his lothario act from Dangerous Liaisons, Malkovich makes an entertaining psychopath, a viper bored with his own idle cruelty. And Hershey does her best work in ages. Kidman, meanwhile, delivers the kind of bravura performance that will probably snag the Oscar nomination that she was unfairly denied after her brilliant turn in To Die For (1995). But there is something opaque and brittle about her Isabel. Although the emotions are there to see, as plain as the tears on her face, they do not invite empathy. And the sudden transformation from independent woman to abused wife makes little sense. The character’s voice gets lost along the way.
Campion directs with a slow, stately rhythm, as if creating a visual counterpart for the expansive luxury of James’s prose. Working with a precise palette that swings between amber and blue, her camera dwells on costume and architecture, swooping from the piazzas of Florence to the Coliseum in Rome. The director has a brilliant eye. But she fails to get behind the eyes of her heroine.
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